Using museum specimens to track morphological shifts through climate change

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  • Heidi J MacLean
  • Matthew E Nielsen, University of North Carolina
  • ,
  • Joel G Kingsolver, University of North Carolina
  • ,
  • Lauren B Buckley, University of Washington

Museum specimens offer a largely untapped resource for detecting morphological shifts in response to climate change. However, morphological shifts can be obscured by shifts in phenology or distribution or sampling biases. Additionally, interpreting phenotypic shifts requires distinguishing whether they result from plastic or genetic changes. Previous studies using collections have documented consistent historical size changes, but the limited studies of other morphological traits have often failed to support, or even test, hypotheses. We explore the potential of collections by investigating shifts in the functionally significant coloration of a montane butterfly, Colias meadii, over the past 60 years within three North American geographical regions. We find declines in ventral wing melanism, which correspond to reduced absorption of solar radiation and thus reduced risk of overheating, in two regions. However, contrary to expected responses to climate warming, we find melanism increases in the most thoroughly sampled region. Relationships among temperature, phenology and morphology vary across years and complicate the distinction between plastic and genetic responses. Differences in these relationships may account for the differing morphological shifts among regions. Our findings highlight the promise of using museum specimens to test mechanistic hypotheses for shifts in functional traits, which is essential for deciphering interacting responses to climate change.This article is part of the theme issue 'Biological collections for understanding biodiversity in the Anthropocene'.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2018

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© 2018 The Author(s).

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